Everest / Alpine Expeditions

Keith Cowing Everest Update: Messages Across Time

By Keith Cowing
Keith Cowing
April 19, 2009
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Keith Cowing Everest Update: Messages Across Time
Keith at the Hillary School in Khumjung with a statue of Sir Edmund Hillary. In his hand is a piece of the Moon collected during Apollo 11.
Keith Cowing

19 April 2009

Today’s foray out of Namche was much more of a workout than yesterday’s hike. After stuffing my face with a good breakfast, Tashi and I set out around 7:30 am. Our destination: Khumjung, elevation 3,780 meters – a 340 meter gain in altitude above Namche. The purpose of this hike is to force the acclimatization process. You go high, exerting yourself along he way, head back down, rest and then head up again, to stay. In the process your body acclimates to functioning in lower oxygen levels. The old saying “climb high, sleep low” embodies this concept. Of course, “better living through chemistry” also applies.

I have been taking 125 mg of Diamox (Acetazolamide) twice a day since I left Kathmandu. I have a noticeable increase in respiration – the prime reason for taking this drug. It does not cure altitude sickness. Rather, it speeds up acclimatization – and it is acclimatization that relieves the classic symptoms (headache, lethargy, shortness of breath, etc.) While I have encountered one side effect, a tingling sensation in my hands, lower face, and feet, I have not yet encountered the other: frequent urination. Another side effect is supposed to be that carbonated beverages taste flat. Well, the Coca Cola they sell here tastes flat – and awful. Then again, the bottles are labeled in Arabic and for all I know it is supposed to be flat.


The advice everyone has given me is to “listen to your body”. I do. I sleep (a lot) when I am tired. I eat when I need to, and I constantly drink fluids. I also have a process down where I integrate walking, breathing, heartbeat, and use of trekking poles – all while my Sherpa Guide Tashi sets the perfect pace. I was so into things today that I turned down a lunch break. Having been rock climbing at similar altitudes in the past, and never having had any problems with altitude, I am hopeful that listening to my body and following other advice will get my body in a functional state to Everest Base Camp in a week.

We spent an hour or so going up a steep path up to the horseshoe-shaped ridge that encompasses Namche. From the top of the ridge I could see where Tashi and I went yesterday for our Everest view. Today, Everest was completely covered by clouds, yet Ama Dablam and Lhotse were clearly visible. As we progressed, Ama Dablam (6,600 meters) became the dominating feature on the horizon. Tashi told me about the time he had climbed it. Given that Tashi is from Pangboche, Ama Dablam (in the immediate vicinity) is a natural for local sherpas to work on. The face he climbed is the one that we could see. The last 500 meters or so looked to be a near vertical sheet of ice.

Stupas in Khumjung

We arrived in Khumjung along a slow, slopping path that had a long series of mani along side. Mani are rocks – some large, some small; some rounded, some flat upon which the Buddhist chant “om padme mani om” has been carved. Although I asked Tashi, I did not need to do so in order to see that these carved rocks were ancient – centuries old. These mani lined paths which, while maintained, had been in constant use for centuries – even eons. You get a very transient, temporary feeling when you see such and embodiment of age, yet you also feel that these rocks, modified by human hands, also send you messages across time from individuals who died a very long time ago. All the while, cows graze along these stone messages, oblivious to it all – and all who pass by (with the exception of trekkers) are oblivious to the cows – as it should be.

As we walked further we came upon the Hillary School – founded by and named for the legendary member of the first team (with sherpa Tenzing Norgay) to set foot atop Mt. Everest. The school yard was filled with students getting ready for, by coincidence, their first day of school. In the courtyard is a statue of “Sir Ed” as he is known. Hillary and his friends led by example and caused large donations to pour into Nepal for a variety of things from this schools to hospitals (we visited one a few minutes later), utility infrastructure, and the Lukla airport (now named after Hillary and Norgay). He continued to be engaged in the cause of exploration for decades right up to the time of his death. As a Fellow of the Explorers Club, I can attest to the innumerable contributions and long-standing influences he had on many people as Honorary President of the club.

Mani along the road into and out of Khumjung

In the end though, Hillary’s dedication was to the people of Nepal, the Sherpa in particular. In the guidebooks I read in preparation for this trip, something seems to be repeated again and again. As with the authors of these guide books, I have seen poverty – in Appalachia, Los Angeles, and abject poverty in Mexico. No one seemed to be particularly happy in these locations. “Poor” is a relative term. Despite conditions most westerners would associate with being “poor”, I simply do not see unhappiness among the Sherpa. Quite the contrary. Without fail, all of the children, and most of the adults greet me with the phrase “namaste” (I salute the God within you) when they pass me. There is a pervasive serenity and happiness among these folks – one that transcends their lack of many of our creature comforts. It is infectious – and it is something we can learn from.

Also, despite the fact that sanitation, animal control, and workers compensation is not the same as what western culture expects, there is a great degree of sophistication in how they do things – you just need to look for it. Below me a dozen men bang away at granite blocks to fashion them into nicely dressed building stones. They take regular breaks and are served tea. While sipping their tea they all whip out their cell phones and either call people or text message.

Cow grazing near the mani

The economy here is like Twitter. If you use Twitter, think about it for a second: all you can use is 140 character messages. Yet if you can cram things into that constraint, it is a useful and infectious service. Here in the mountainous regions of Nepal, all commerce up here is broken into Twitter-like units – packets – quanta – that focus on what one human and/or one yak can carry. Just as people have found a way to use Twitter or texting to condense thoughts into short little bursts, these sherpa have found a way to build houses, install hydroelectric plants and satellite dishes, pour concrete, transport lumber – and virtually every village has some form of Internet access. Only when it is cost effective does a helicopter show up to drop things off.

We in the west get lazy when everything is provided to us with little or no effort. I am certain that how the Sherpa do things is not that much different than the pragmatic approaches taken elsewhere in the world. I’d be watching those cultures very carefully if I were looking to model the world’s economy in the years to come.

Namche from above

Tonight I repack for tomorrow’s trek up to Tengboche (3,867 meters) where I will spend a day and a half acclimating. I am not exactly certain what Internet access I will have there. After that I head for Dengboche – again for a day and a half. It is there that I expect to bump into the NASA trek team. I have to go out and buy a few things before I depart – I do not think shopping will be this good in the weeks to come.

As I mentioned above, there is quite a high level of market sophistication here. The other day, as Tashi and I were walking around Namche he chuckled and told me that he had overheard two shop keepers talking about the current financial crisis in America. Yesterday, as I was walking around, I nodded and smiled at several women tending stores who had clearly hoped that I’d stop and buy something. As I walked off one of them sighed to the other “just looking” – to which the other woman replied in agreement “just looking”.

They have our consumer buying habits nailed.




Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA Space Station Payload manager/space biologist, Away Teams, Journalist, Lapsed climber, Synaesthete, Na’Vi-Jedi-Freman-Buddhist-mix, ASL, Devon Island and Everest Base Camp veteran, (he/him) 🖖🏻